The Sound that Surrounds Us

As an autistic person, one of the hardest things to endure and the most common factor on reaching overload for me personally is noise.

I find it impossible to sleep if it’s noisy. Sleeping in summer, when my bedroom window has to be open to catch any breath of cool air, is sketchy at best. Once upon a time I lived in a relatively rural area. I took the relative quiet for granted. The only night time noises I recall – except for the very occasional noisy neighbor – were howls from coyotes, but I never heard them in the house. For the past fifteen years or so I’ve been living in cities, in apartments. Not by choice. I can get used to the sound of traffic within reason. The steady swishing of cars down the street becomes similar to waves of the ocean, though not as soothing. While I can feel my brain expanding -relaxing? – in a delicious, calming way at the ocean, traffic noise causes a tightening, more shutdown – defensive? – sensation.

Then there are people themselves. The noise of people is excruciating. Today there is a child squealing in the neighboring building. It’s not that loud really, and not necessarily an unhappy sound, but every time it squeals it feels like my bones are going to leap out of my skin. I could close my window and turn my air conditioner on, but my energy bill is horrendous and it’s quite a lovely day. I’m trying to cut costs. Should I have to close my window because someone’s child is squealing? It’s been going on – intermittently – for hours.

noise warning

I have a soundproof headset but I find it even more uncomfortable than ear plugs. It gives me a severe headache within minutes, even at its loosest fit. I probably need to get something expensive. Something that has soothing masking noise would be nice . . . light rain or ocean waves. Having music or a video on would help drown out noise, but it distracts me too badly from whatever else I’m trying to do. I cannot write or read with music or TV on.

The funny thing is, I have a very noisy job. As a music educator I deal with not just large classes of children but all their instruments too. I enjoy an interactive classroom, and I assure you the instrumental sounds we make are not always pleasant or even cohesive music, especially this early in the year! Children need to be able to practice freely, and I give them that opportunity, especially at the beginning of class. Not all of them are allowed to practice at home. Some also live in apartments and are actually considerate of their neighbors (as I am) or are not allowed to for other reasons. It upsets grandparents. It disturbs babies. Or the parent doesn’t like the noise. Or the student just doesn’t bother. For whatever reason, many of my students do not practice at home, so I encourage them to play freely at the beginning of class. It’s something I can handle for a limited time and for logical reasons. And the music that we eventually make, and the joy the students have in making it, is SO worthwhile. My students come to understand that, while I don’t require them to be silent at the beginning and ending of class, they must be relatively quiet during class, and speak one at a time, but that’s a different issue.

HOWEVER . . . having to endure other people’s noise at home is completely different. Being woken up several times during the night by cars playing thumping loud music, people talking loudly as if at a football game, and even the homeless people going through the dumpster – it takes a toll. One of my neighbors has an extremely loud voice. Everything seems to be yelled and his laugh is like an explosion. HAHAHAHA! He stays up very late and my bedroom is next to his living room. His TV is loud too. I’ve asked for them to be quieter at night but he actually got aggressive. I just avoid them and try to live with it.

I wear ear plugs to sleep even though they are very uncomfortable for me and accentuate the noise in my head. I don’t feel rested after sleeping in ear plugs, but it beats not sleeping at all. I wear them to concerts too, at least until my ears adapt to the noise, but I don’t go to concerts often for that very reason. I don’t deal well with crowds of people either, but that’s a different issue as well. Perhaps I should have been an astronaut. I hear space is very quiet.

astronaut in space

Except for the whole fear of heights and claustrophobia thing.

Anyway, I thought I’d write something about what it’s like – being so sensitive to noise – as I sit here wearing ear plugs in the middle of the day because a neighbor’s child is squealing. It’s been all day now. I had three children and none of them screamed or squealed or yelled. Not in the house for no reason.

Why is this necessary and how do neurotypical people endure it? Most people just don’t seem to notice these things. Do you have issues with noise? If so, what have you found that helps? Have you had experience explaining it to other people?

B B Shepherd is a musician, educator, and author and can also be found at Glistering: B’s Blog

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